Astrospies ( nova 2008  imdb ) is an interesting but overcooked documentary about the US manned program to have astronauts man spy satellites. It was written by James Bamford, the author of the excellent The Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets books about the NSA. The spy satellite programs during the Cold War are a neglected part of Cold War history. The ability to check on the military movements of the other side coupled with better launch detection enabled the two combatants to be able to trust each other. The US Keyhole satellites and the agency that ran them, the National Reconnaissance Organisation (NRO) were absolutely critical. Their history is sadly hardly documented.

In Astrospies Bamford documents the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program and the Soviet equivalent. Some space suits were found in Cape Canaveral in December 2004 that had names on them that were not the names of known Astronauts and that were different from NASA space suits. Bamford read an article about the suits. He looked up the names and found some more references to it. The MOL program also included a man who would have been the first African American in space had he not died in an accident. Many of the astronauts would go on to very senior positions in the US military.

The MOL program astronaut selection began in 1964. What the documentary doesn’t say is that the already very successful Keyhole satellite program has been running for 5 years at that stage. The unmanned spy satellites would go on to remove the need for the aims of the MOL and similar Soviet program. The story is however, very interesting, the degree of secrecy and the way that the Soviet spacecraft at least had weapons aboard that were designed to destroy other orbital objects. The interviews with the astronauts are also interesting, hearing them say how they felt as the NASA astronauts went to the moon while their own program didn’t prosper.

No doubt the US and Soviets learned lessons that would later be applied to other manned missions, but as it stands the manned surveliance program didn’t succeed but was no done just in case it panned out.

Overall the documentary is interesting but the lack of discussion of the success of the keyhole program removes the context of the program which is a pity. Nonetheless, worth a look.



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